June 11, 2023
Three Desperate People Meet Jesus
At first glance this passage in Matthew seems like three unrelated little stories stuck together. Simply because they happen on the same day. But look closer and you see three desperate people from different walks of life encounter Jesus. Each of them compromises him in regards to the purity laws needs but of them come with their own desperation. A desperation that overrides the purity concerns. And they each see God’s presence in him.
The first is Matthew, who becomes a disciple. He seems to be the last of the twelve, at least the last one whose calling is spelled out. Had he heard and seen Jesus before? -We don’t know. His calling and response both seem out of the blue. One has to assume that he had had some contact with Jesus before this. He must have been looking for something else in his life, don’t you think? Tax collectors worked for the Romans and were looked down on or resented by a large part of the Jewish population. Not only were they collaborators with the overlords, they had to handle Roman money and deal with gentiles which meant they regularly came in contact with the unclean. But they also got their wages by collecting more than Rome demanded in taxes for their region and keeping the extra as profit. The very nature of the job made you despised. -Yes, some could become wealthy depending on how much they could cajole and strong-arm people, but most, simply got by on the edges of society. Most people simply tried to avoid them.
Matthew was sick of it, it seems. Jesus’ message of acceptance and a calling to a higher loyalty, and a vision of a different world gave him both hope and a reason for living that he had not known before. He was desperate for something new and for grace that might embrace him.
Of course, the religious leaders found it scandalous that Jesus not only accepted this unclean conspirator with Rome among his followers, but then he had the audacity to go to this man’s home and eat dinner with him -and a bunch of his friends. The minute Jesus walked into this house he was considered religiously unclean.
Of course, when your heart is breaking, and there seems to be no hope, you are willing to overlook a lot of things. Such was the case for the one religious leader whose daughter had just died. (In Mark and Luke, who tell the same story, the man says his daughter is dying, not already dead.) He’s a person with some religious rank who would have been well aware of the purity laws, but he just comes right in as the dinner is finishing and kneels before Jesus begging him to come bring his healing presence to his daughter. He believes God’s presence is in Jesus. Jesus holds no grudges. He immediately gets up, skips dessert I guess, and heads to the man’s house.
We aren’t told how far away the man’s house is. But along the route, with the disciples, the man, and a whole entourage of on-lookers and people interested to see what will happen, a woman who has had a menstrual cycle problem for 12 years, bleeding nonstop all that time, pushes through the crowd. This illness makes her ritually unclean according to Leviticus. Twelve years of being unclean, having to be on the outskirts of respectable society. If you think COVID restrictions were hard, imagine this woman with 12 years of keeping a distance. She just wants to touch him, or even the bottom of his cloak. She believes God’s presence is in him. She lunges forward, perhaps falling on her knees just touching the bottom of his robe. Jesus feels something, something more than just a tug on his robe. He feels grace and power has gone out of him. He feels the faith and the longing that has brought her to this point. Jesus turns and sees her. There is a gentleness in his response. He is not angry at the interruption. Interruptions in life are sometimes the most important work we do! He calls her “Daughter”. It is a term of affection and relationship, probably short for “Daughter of Abraham,” which also affirms that she is blessed, a child of God, someone with a heritage of hope and a relationship to God’s promises. Is it a coincidence that he is on his way to heal an important man’s daughter? Probably not; Jesus is emphasizing that she too is a daughter, and every bit as important as the official’s. It immediately lets her know that she is not being rebuked or called out for overstepping. He assures her that her faith has made her well. It is a beautiful story of faith and affirmation.
When Jesus arrives at the official’s house, they are already mourning her death. They assume it is too late for Jesus to do anything. Jesus dismisses all the mourners saying this girl is not really dead, only sleeping. Again, as soon as he takes the dead girl’s hand (at least dead in their minds) Jesus is unclean. There is a whole ritual you have to go through after touching a dead body before you are considered clean. Jesus once again, ignores all of that. He is simply responding to the father’s faith and grief and bringing life and hope to where there is death and sorrow. Or, as John quotes Jesus saying, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
Three desperate and very different people encounter Jesus on the same day. Each of them responds with remarkable faith. –Matthew, the unclean tax collector, drops everything, quits his job and becomes a disciple. -A woman, suffering from an illness that makes her unclean, brazenly pushes through the throng around Jesus to simply touch his garment. -An official in the synagogue ignores protocols, breaks into a dinner hosted by a tax collector and attended by those considered unclean, a dinner he would normally avoid at all costs, to beg Jesus to give his daughter life. Each of them from a different status and place in society yet each of them needs Jesus. Jesus reacts to each of them with the same caring and the same life-giving power. There is no differentiation in his attitude or response. Each gets what they need. Each is gifted with new life.
The three stories so clearly show God’s unconditional love in action through Jesus. It is like the UCC motto, God doesn’t care who you are or where you are on life’s journey, and neither does Jesus. Maybe that’s the reason that Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all tell these three stories. They bear a truth so important for us. Each of them is a great story individually. But taken together they are the consummate word of hope and grace. Maybe that’s the reason Matthew puts the three of them together in one day. Mark and Luke separate Matthew’s call.
It all starts with a celebration dinner Matthew, the new disciple, throws. He has invited Jesus and the other disciples, but also a bunch of other folks from the far edges of society. It is the springboard for all that happens.
We don’t know if these other two people had their life changed beyond the healing. Don’t you wonder how the synagogue official reacted to others who were considered unclean after this? -And what the woman did with her life after her healing?
Some people change their lives completely after an experience of grace. Certainly, Matthew did. But sometimes people just fall back into their old habits and mind set. There’s always the hope that encountering Jesus makes a permanent difference. I guess in my mind I think of the official having a gentler attitude towards those on the outside of society and maybe the woman found a place of service to neighbors and friends, or perhaps others suffering from diseases that put them at arm’s length from others.
The three stories are meant to let us know that no matter where we are, or who we are, we are not outside God’s grace -and that Jesus is always ready to respond to the desperation that sometimes envelopes us in life. May the presence of that Jesus be with you.